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Approaching police during investigation could bring jail time

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — The author of a bill to limit the public’s movements near busy police officers on Tuesday said the measure gives police a chance to de-escalate with bystanders.

A Senate panel approved the measure on a party-line vote. Under the bill, if a person approaches within 25 feet of an officer conducting an investigation and doesn’t back up if the officer tells them to, they could face up to 60 days in jail and up to a $500 fine. Bill author Rep. Wendy McNamara, an Evansville Republican, said she wrote the bill in response to officers increasingly having to simultaneously work a crime scene and deal with bystander interference. She said the measure would only apply to active investigations, not to officers out on patrol or engaged in other daily tasks.

The measure is based on a concept known as the 21-foot rule. Long taught in police academies and self-defense classes, the concept holds that 21 feet is the minimum distance someone needs to identify and respond to someone attacking them with a bladed or blunt-force weapon. Plainfield Police Chief Kyle Prewitt, testifying on behalf of the Indiana Association of Chiefs of Police, said the average police department in Indiana has 10 or fewer officers, so backup is unlikely to arrive right away. Moreover, he said the current situation doesn’t give officers a way to deescalate a situation with bystanders.

“Right now, I can ask anyone present during an investigation, ‘Hey, can you step back?’” he said. “If they comply, that’s great, but if they don’t, now I’ve just shown my cards and I’ve got nothing else to do. The only thing I can do in that moment is detain the person that I have and put them in the police car, which might be an escalation, it may escalate the person who’s there.”

Civil liberties advocates said state law already prohibits interfering with a police investigation. Katie Blair, the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana’s director of public policy and advocacy, said convictions have been secured against police officers in a number of recent high-profile misconduct cases, including the 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, due to bystander video shot at close range.

“Citizens’ ability to record police records creates an independent record of what took place in a particular incident,” she said. “Community members cannot hold police officers accountable if they cannot observe what is going on.”

The bill now heads to the full Senate. It already passed the House in February.